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Anselm Kiefer Matthew Biro

y p o c p ro o f e l a s e r r o n ot f

phaidon . focus


Investigating Identity


a painter from germany


FOCUS  1   wooden interiors


a succession of styles


FOCUS  2  the burning of the rural district of buchen


FOCUS  3   interior

43 69

the breakthroughs and successes of the 1980s


FOCUS  4  la ribaute: a total work of art


alchemy and mysticism


FOCUS  5  pyramid paintings

100 107

FOCUS  6  catholicism and judaism


FOCUS  7  new forms of the book


FOCUS  8  chlebnikov




further reading


list of works

first decade in france

poetry, women and monumental sculpture

Investigating Identity For more than three decades, Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) has been internationally recognized as among the most important German artists since World War II. Like Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Kiefer has influenced not just his own nation’s art but also that of his contemporaries in general. Indeed, Kiefer’s global heft since the 1980s (years before Richter) has assured his status as a figure who has consistently helped to define the ideas and approaches that most matter in contemporary art. Through his mournful and monumental paintings, sculptures, books and large-scale installations, Kiefer addresses the issues of our times – war, energy, religion and politics – as well as broader historical themes. His sophisticated handling of multiple media reveals a profound understanding of how people communicate in a globally interrelated world. He has not only advanced painting but also sculpture, bookmaking, installation and land art. Kiefer became famous in the early 1980s as a Neo-Expressionist, part of an international movement that brought expressive gesture and distortions back into painting. The drama within Neo-Expressionism was a response to the industrial abstractions of Minimalism as well as the deadpan nature of Pop Art and Conceptual Art, which were then dominant art forms on both sides of the Atlantic. Although Neo-Expressionism quickly gained acceptance, this did not happen without heated debate. As Kiefer’s art used German texts and symbols, he became a particular flashpoint for critics; early on, his work was accused of cynicism, commercialism and even fascism. However, by the end of the decade Kiefer was widely recognized as having created a body of work that convincingly engaged the subject of German identity, and which provoked questions about the social construction of memory, history and responsibility at a time when the country was still divided. The importance of Kiefer's art lies in its articulation of a sophisticated form of identity politics, an examination of how we construct ourselves as individuals in the contexts of our cultures. Three years after Germany reunified in 1989, Kiefer moved to France, where he still lives today. There, his concerns became more global and his sculptures more environmental, as he began to build houses, towers and other architectural structures. Slowly, the politics of Kiefer’s German identity art became cross-cultural – the creative self-fashioning of an expatriate living in France, whose monumental selfportrait now hangs in the Louvre. By suspending himself between different ‘nationalities’ through his work, Kiefer raised important questions about how to make art in a period of increasing pluralism and how to develop one’s self through it – questions that remain central today. ◄ Anselm Kiefer

A Painter from Germany



Kiefer’s first major creative phase – his German years from 1969 to 1993 – is best understood as a response to a series of important prohibitions, against painting, against direct representation, and even against being German, all of which he confronted. Born on 8 March 1945, in Donaueschingen, near Freiburg im Breisgau, Kiefer gravitated to art in the mid to late 1960s, when West Germany experienced a turn to the left and its contemporary scene was moving in a socio-political direction. At that time, the medium of painting suddenly seemed less relevant to contemporaries, as suggested by the recognition given to the sculptures, installations and actions of Joseph Beuys, then the most influential German artist. As implied by Beuys’s cryptic performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, one of the harbingers of the new direction, West German aesthetics moved towards conceptualism between the mid 1960s and early 1970s, focusing more on ideas than on artefacts. In addition, through Beuys, the artist’s body and actions received new attention as vehicles for meaning: thus, a West German ‘body art’ was born. Although advanced forms of paintings were made during this time – for example, by Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), Blinky Palermo (1943–1977) and Richter – the medium was, on the whole, less exhibited and influential than at any other time in its history. As art was required to assume an ever-increasing socio-political function, traditional forms of representation and abstraction seemed inadequate for the job, particularly to young artists like Kiefer.

Existentialism From the outset, Kiefer also faced social and psychological prohibitions against being a German. Although as a child he had experienced the poverty of the immediate post-war aftermath, Kiefer grew up and became a young adult during the ‘climate of forgetting’ that characterized the country’s economic miracle of the 1950s, a time of post-war boom when most Germans embraced materialism and denied collective involvement in the shame of National Socialism. The recent past was forgotten, personal memories were repressed. However, as Kiefer matured, this climate was changing: he took his first important creative steps during the time of radical social critique that emerged with the student movements at the end of the 1960s. Kiefer thus began as an artist at a moment when huge debates about West German history, memory and identity – on an individual and a collective level – began to arise, controversies that his work would engage for more than two decades. ◄ A young Kiefer working in his studio, as photographed for the cover of his book Heroic Symbols (Heroische Sinnbilder), 1969.

their lives in terms of examples inherited from their own cultures, they must pay particular attention to the choices that determine the broader directions of their lives. Kiefer would use existentialism as a platform for making art. Taking Beuys’s performances as his model, he produced artworks that documented his self-fashioning through both action and creation.

1 Joseph Beuys (1921–1986)

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965

Performance at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf

occupations [4–8]

[8, 4]

Kiefer's interest in these controversies stems, of course, from his own personal history. He grew up in the Black Forest region in southwestern Germany, and, after graduating high school in 1965, Kiefer read Law and French at the University of Freiburg. After three semesters, Kiefer changed to painting, studying with the conceptual painter Peter Dreher (b. 1932), and graduating in 1969. The young artist then briefly worked with the figurative painter Horst Antes (b. 1936) in Karlsruhe, before switching to the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf in 1970–2, during which time he also had several intellectual exchanges with Joseph Beuys. In 1971, Kiefer moved to the rural town of Hornbach in southwest Germany, an area in which he would continue to live and work as an artist until 1992. And throughout this time in his homeland, the decisions that he made as a creator, the ways he defined himself as a German, were among his primary concerns. In the late 1960s Kiefer thus asked the existential question of how can one legitimately be a German artist in the wake of the Nazi State. Here lay the dilemma. On the one hand, all symbols of Germany and ‘Germanness’ were tainted by their association with National Socialism, as was much of the nation’s high culture too. On the other hand, if Kiefer was to present himself as a German artist, he had to define who he was and what he stood for in relation to his country’s social, cultural and political history. To tackle this problem, Kiefer turned to existentialism. Already popular in Germany before the war, existentialism was a philosophy that explored the principles by means of which people should live, or rather, make their lives. It held that the world ultimately had no meanings other than those that human beings gave to it; and that it was each individual’s responsibility to shape a worthwhile life on their own terms. Existentialists distinguished between authentic and inauthentic existences, lives lived well or poorly. Since both reason and instinct govern human actions, and because people conduct 8

A Painter from Germany

[7] [1]

[5, 6]

Kiefer’s books from 1969 and 1970, and two series in particular, Heroic Symbols (Heroische Sinnbilder) and For Jean Genet (Für Jean Genet), represented Kiefer’s first attempts at asking how to become a German artist after the Third Reich. They are unique books presenting photographs from Occupations, a series of conceptual art ‘actions’ that he performed in 1968 and 1969. In them, Kiefer made a ‘Sieg Heil’ gesture in a variety of different settings, including standing in a bathtub in his studio as well as in front of a variety of European monuments. Like Beuys, Kiefer used costumes and action in his performances to craft a mysterious artistic figurehead, a character he used to evoke questions about art and fascism. Yet, unlike Beuys, who often performed for live audiences and the mass media, Kiefer acted primarily for the camera and his persona is decidedly more private than the one Beuys presented. Kiefer used the book format to conjure a portrait of a dangerous German creator who constructs himself through symbolic actions and artefacts. Many of these books collate photographs of military games that he had set up with toy soldiers on a small table in his studio as well as the traces of other symbolic or practical actions, while others show him nude or garbed in long nightshirts in a gender-bending parody of a Norse god. In addition to documenting photographs of his various performances, the books also contain Kiefer’s own small watercolours. Collating both abstract and representational 2 Georg Baselitz (b.1938) Woodmen, 1967–8 248.7 × 200 cm (98 × 78 ¾ in) Charcoal and synthetic resin on canvas The Museum of Modern Art, New York


A Painter from Germany

Anselm Kiefer  
Anselm Kiefer  

Künstler im Focus: Die Stars der Kunstszene von den 50er Jahren bis heute. Diese lebendig geschriebenen und wunderschön illustrierten Bücher...